May 2014

Iowa’s “Black Gold”

with help from Mark Thompson, Red Rock Lake Association Committee member

When European settlers first arrived in what is now Iowa, they encountered a vast sea of grasses and flowers, with scattered woodlands bordering the many streams and rivers. The north-central part of the state was dotted with numerous wetlands, holdovers from the last glacial event in the state. Over 85% of the state was a prairie landscape that was described as a place rich in form, life, and color, and a mecca for wildlife.

The first settlers assumed that if the majority of the land was too poor to grow trees, it was surely too poor to grow much in the way of crops. For a long time, homes were built in the wooded areas and the forests were laboriously cleared as they were back in Europe. They failed to see that trees grew on the prairie’s poorest soils, a thin veneer of fertility that would erode over time when there were no longer trees to stabilize it. In central Iowa, as late as 1847, prairie was selling for $3 to $10 per acre while timberland sold for $30 to $50.

The graphic at left shows how deep the roots of prairie grasses extend. The depth of the roots plus the annual die-off and rejuvenation of the prairie, was how Iowa's thick, black topsoil developed.

In spite of the prairie’s strangeness and struggles, pioneer families soon found that the prairie landscape was where the action was. They left the trees, built sod houses and soon began to find out what the land really offered - deep fertile soil. This legacy was developed by the deep penetrating roots of the prairie species and was responsible for development of a thick, black layer of topsoil known as Iowa’s “Black Gold.”

Had they known the world’s most fertile soil lay under these grasslands early on, it would have made little difference. There were no tools available to the new settlers that could be used to plow through the thick prairie sod. Soon, there were plowmen who would break your claim for $12.25 per acre with a “breaking plow,” a huge device drawn by five yoke of oxen that cut a furrow three-feet wide.

A giant breakthrough came in 1837 when a fellow from Illinois named John Deere invented his new prairie plow. It was a walking plow that could be drawn through the prairie’s sod with a three-horse team. A farmer could break the dense sod with amazing efficiency. One man and his team working for only two months could have an “eighty” (eighty acres) broken and planted with sod corn. Even though it might be years before the grassroots had completely rotted and the soil became rich, smooth, loam, it was well worth it for farming. The John Deere plow helped make some of the most productive land in the world available to farmers, but it also marked the end of the Iowa prairie. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Iowa prairie was essentially gone. Though the 30-million acres of prairie in Iowa took thousands of years to develop, nearly all was converted to agricultural land in less than 80 years.

Bison (commonly called buffalo) elk, and antelope were the largest species to roam Iowa’s prairies. Bison provided food, hides, and other body parts that were vital to surviving Iowa’s winters for Native Americans and first settlers. There is a considerable amount of Iowa history left behind from the roaming of bison and elk, but doubtful they will ever roam wild in Iowa again. There are areas in Iowa to view managed bison and elk herds. A public and prairie education area close to Marion County is Neal Smith Prairie Learning Center in Prairie City, Iowa.

There are many prairie species that have been left behind, reduced in number or are unable to survive annual disturbances. Grassland birds like the short-eared owl, Henslow and grasshopper sparrow, bobolinks, and dickcissel require large, open areas of prairie, considering most predators prefer areas with trees. The management of prairie is also crucial to these species.

The species that we can easily see with our eye can always capture us, but let us not forget the most numerous of the prairie animals – the insects. The diversity of grasses, flowers, leaves, and stems provide an abundance of habitat. The prairie insects are not only important pollinators, they are also the basis for the prairie food chains, aeration, and the mixing of rich soil. The insect world is considered the center of life on the prairie.

Learn more about prairie in Iowa!

Today less than 0.1% of Iowa’s prairies remain as remnants in right-of-ways, pastures, and pioneer cemeteries. Many of these prairie remnants are managed by conservation agencies and nonprofits. Other prairie areas have been restored and are just as amazing to see! Loss of prairie habitat also has impacted our Iowa animals and many of those animals needing prairie habitat have been extirpated (pushed from the state) or are listed as threatened or endangered species.

These Iowa prairies are must-see areas!

Prairie restoration and management links and info:

It's hard to grasp what was without memory! Read this article posted on the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation website to gain some insight: "ReWilding - How, then, am I to find you, if I have no memoryof you? The not-so-whimsical words of a wee-one."

Books that may be of interest (we like them!)

    • A Country So Full of Game: The story of wildlife in Iowa, by James J. Dinsmore

    • Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie by John Madson

    • A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

    • A Practical Guide to Prairie Reconstruction by Carl Kurtz

    • Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie by Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa

Check out grasses, flowers, and animals that are common on a tallgrass prairie!

View the "Black Gold" album in Google Photos.

...and images from a prairie savanna in the spring!

View the "Prairie Savanna Spring Flowers" album in Google Photos.

There are still native tallgrass prairies in Kansas and to keep these prairies vibrant, they are managed by fire - check out this NPR story about the Flint Hills.